On Wednesday (July 13) at 3pm GMT, I will participate in be Waste Wise’s online panel “Changing Lifestyle to Mitigate Climate Change.” A link to the panel, and to other be Waste Wise events, may be found here.
Fresh from the printer, the new issue of IA – The Journal of the Society for Industrial Archeology (Vol. 39, No. 1 & 2) is available, and it is dedicated to the theme of industrial waste. Journal editor Fred Quivik and I were fortunate to get articles on mining waste, coal ash, arsenic, and automobile graveyards from Sean M. Gorman, Samantha MacBride, the team of Lloyd B. Tepper and Jefffrey H. Tepper, and David Lucsko, respectively. Fred also contributed an article on mine tailings in Idaho’s Coeur d’Alene mining district, and my old friend and colleague Mike Bryson and I contributed an article about the past and present of Chicago’s Bubbly Creek, which Upton Sinclair aptly described as “Chicago’s Great Open Sewer” more than a century ago.
As Fred describes in his lead editorial, “this special issue of IA is dedicated to industrial waste and what it can tell us about who we are as an industrial people. Industrial archaeologists typically focus analyses on the artifacts produced by industrial processes, on the equipment and skills employed by people to produce those artifacts, and on the complexes of structures and landscapes that house and support the full range of industrial activities. Careful industrial archaeologists also consider that which industrial activity discards, but such considerations seldom take center stage. This special issue of IA gives the spotlight to waste.”
Our colleagues in this special issue include industrial archaeologists, historians of technology and the environment, and sociologists. We also have reviews of several related books (see the table of contents for details.) The cover image is Edwin Buckman’s A London Dustyard, as featured in Samantha MacBride’s article on coal ash.
For information on how to order a copy, see the journal’s website. Thanks to all of the contributors and especially to Fred for inviting me to guest edit this special issue.
The American Society for Environmental History meets in Seattle this year, and I am part of two discussions related to waste, technology, and the environment.
On Friday, April 1 at 10:30am, I will chair the panel “Ethereal Wastescapes: Rethinking the Meaning, Place, and Materiality of Pollution,” with papers by Sara Pritchard, Nina Wormbs, and Ruth Rand.
On Saturday, April 2 at 3pm, I will be part of a roundtable discussion on discard studies and history with participants including Martin Melosi, Steve Corey, and Peter Thorsheim. We will, indeed, be talking trash.
Today is the 95th anniversary of onetime Memphis Mayor Henry Loeb’s birth. As I discuss in my forthcoming book Clean and White: A History of Environmental Racism in the United States (available from NYU Press January 8, 2016, and available for preorder now) Loeb’s life and actions reflect the shifting power relations around white identity in the 20th century, and the ways those power relations were used to exacerbate environmental racism.
Loeb is most famous (or infamous) for his role in the events leading up to Martin Luther King, Jr’s 1968 assassination. Dr. King was in Memphis to support a strike of sanitation workers when he was killed. That strike was triggered by Mayor Loeb’s actions.
Loeb became mayor as a champion of white supremacy. That fact does not set him apart from George Wallace, Lester Maddox, or the many politicians who used racist ideology to win and retain office in the 1960s. Loeb’s history, however, illuminates an aspect of white supremacy usually not remarked upon — its association with hygiene.
Loeb was descended from German Jewish immigrants who arrived in Memphis during the nineteenth century. His grandfather opened a successful chain of laundries that employed African-American women to do the hard work of keeping the customers’ clothes clean. The Loeb family grew prosperous off this labor; Henry was born in 1920 into a family of wealth and privilege. He attended Philips Academy prep school and Brown University. His friends included John F. Kennedy (who, like Henry, served on a patrol boat during World War II).
Henry tended to the family business after World War II. He resisted efforts from black workers to organize unions, kept wages and overhead low, and continued to keep the enterprise profitable. He married Mary Gregg, the 1950 queen of the Memphis Cotton Carnival (a celebration of the Cotton South and the Confederacy) and converted from Judiasm to the Episcopal Church.
Having assimilated into the upper crust of white Memphis society, Loeb began a political career. He got elected to the Memphis City Commission in 1955 and began his oversight of the Public Works Department, which included streets and sanitation.
As historian Michael K. Honey observed in his terrific book Going Down Jericho Road, the workers in Memphis’s Sanitation Department charged with collecting garbage were overwhelmingly African American and male. Under Loeb, they were subject to dangerous working conditions and often forced to work an additional hour each day without pay.
Loeb used his experience to run an explicitly racist campaign for mayor in 1959, serving a term before stepping down to run the family business after the manager had died of a heart attack. After four years away, he ran again for the office in 1967, once again winning an explicitly racist campaign.
Mayor Loeb refused to entertain workers’ desire to have their union recognized or their desire for improved working conditions. With tensions rising, two workers, Echol Cole and Robert Walker, were killed on a garbage truck. They were riding on the back of the truck as was procedure in Memphis’s Department of Public Works. In a pouring rain, the two men tried to take cover as best they could by climbing onto a perch between a hydraulic ram used to compact the garbage and the inner wall of the truck. Somewhere along the drive, the ram activated, crushing the two men to death. One had tried to escape, but the mechanism caught his raincoat and pulled him back to his death.
The men’s deaths led to an immediate walkout. Loeb did not back down, refusing to negotiate with the workers. The history of the strike, Dr. King’s involvement in it, its marches, its violence, Loeb’s refusal to negotiate, and the aftermath of Dr. King’s assassination are discussed in Chapter 8 of Clean and White. Available January 8 from NYU Press, the book contextualizes Loeb’s actions in a time when fears about waste and racial purity intertwined, producing new labor markets and spatial arrangements to manage the materials Americans classified as waste. Loeb is one of the actors in a long history of Americans’ often troubled relationship with those wastes and with each other. This is how I remember him on the 95th anniversary of his birth.
Today is the anniversary of Col. George E. Waring’s death. Waring, most famous for the sanitary reforms he developed as Street Commissioner of New York City, had been appointed by President McKinley to investigate sanitation in Cuba. There, he contracted yellow fever, which killed him at the age of 65.
Waring had immediate and enduring influence on the sanitation of two major American cities. He developed a sewer system for Memphis that alleviated that city’s chronic cholera and yellow fever epidemics. In New York City, he modernized waste management, establishing the “White Wings” street-cleaners (teams dressed in immaculate white uniforms to sweep the streets), and transforming sanitation work from patronage to a necessary city service.
Waring’s work saved thousands of lives and made urban life both cleaner and safer. The way he conducted his work also revealed attitudes about waste and race widespread in late nineteenth-century American life. In New York City, Waring expanded the department to scavenge value from discards. To do so, he hired Italian immigrants, “a race,” Waring reasoned, “with a genius for rag-and-bone picking and for subsisting on rejected trifles of food.”
This attitude is jarring in 2015, but was commonplace in the 1890s. Sanitary engineers, sociologists, and advertisements have all left evidence that peoples other than native-born whites in the United States were seen as somehow more fit to handle waste or otherwise be exposed to waste. How this attitude developed, how it was resisted by many affected people, and what consequences it has had for American society is the subject of my new book Clean and White: A History of Environmental Racism in the United States. Available Nov. 13 from NYU Press, the book contextualizes Waring’s work in a time when fears about waste and racial purity intertwined, producing new labor markets and spatial arrangements to manage the materials Americans classified as waste. Waring is one of the actors in a long history of Americans’ often troubled relationship with those wastes and with each other.
Waring’s death from yellow fever was a reminder that the hazards he sought to eliminate endured in the Americas. His life, and his life’s work, showed the complex ways in which perception of those hazards shaped American society. He should be remembered for both his accomplishments and these complexities, and that is one of the goals of the book.
Recycling is a process. It exists not because of sentiment, but because the systems of industrial production and disposal that have developed over the past two centuries have found that reclaiming post-industrial and post-consumer materials is a better use of time, energy, and money than harvesting virgin resources. I elaborate on this history in Cash for Your Trash.
Recycling programs have their limits. Municipal recycling systems struggle with the hazards of manufactured goods that were not designed with disassembly in mind. Efforts to restrict problematic materials (such as New York City’s attempted ordinance to ban polystyrene food containers) face well-financed campaigns by industries resistant to taking producer responsibility for their materials. Since the 1950s, such industries have promoted the emergence of recycling collection systems to shift the burdens of waste away from producers. Design decisions (such as the shift from reusable glass bottles to disposable PET bottles) now burden recycling programs rather than Coke or Pepsi.
But recycling endures and grows. It does so because the markets for salvaged material in industrial society endure. The markets rise and fall; lower prices for copper and steel in 2015 due to problems in the Chinese economy follow price declines during the global economic meltdown of late 2008, and previous recessions and depressions dating back to the nineteenth century. Economic history suggests the decline is temporary; recycling is big business because squandering the value of discards in landfills and waterways is inefficient.
The hazards and efficiencies of recycling can always improve. Designing goods for recycling (by reducing the use of toxic or unrecyclable materials, as well as making separating of materials from the finished product easy) will allow recyclers to safely and successfully return materials to production. These measures will improve a resilient practice that has thrived at a large scale since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution. Human societies have recycled for millennia and the growth of this practice since the advent of mass production and disposal of industrial goods represents a rational response to what would otherwise be the squandering of value in unprecedented mountains of discards. Any analysis of waste management practices that does not recognize this history is a waste of time.
Last winter, Brian Balogh of the BackStory podcast interviewed me for an episode on the history of waste. Now, the episode (including that interview as well as ones with fellow waste scholars Robin Nagle, Catherine McNeur, Brett Mizelle, Bart Elmore, and David Sklansky as well as recycling logo designer Gary Anderson) is available to hear.
If you’re curious about my family’s story as it relates to this history (and also want to hear my voice decay), click the link, as the American History Guys chose to use the part where I discuss what prompted me to write Cash for Your Trash (and much of that book’s second and third chapters).
Brian Balogh also gets an egregious pun (and my reaction to said pun) onto the podcast.